Symbols and motifs

Yorick's skull

The symbol of Yorick's skull from William Shakespeare’s “Hamlet” refers to the leitmotif of death. At the beginning of Act 5, when Hamlet observes a gravedigger treating the remains of the deceased with carelessness and disrespect, he can hardly believe how much the dead are dehumanized in the process.

Unlike the gravedigger, Hamlet still sees the character of the deceased in the mortal remains and ponders who might be behind the bones, whether it was a politician, a courtier, or a jurist, for example. He feels that they should be given due respect even after death: "Did these bones cost no more the breeding, but to play at loggats with 'em? mine ache to think on't." (5.1.82-84).

Finally, the gravedigger shows Hamlet the skull of a man he knew in real life: the skull of Yorick, who has been a jester in the royal court. Hamlet cannot stop himself from comparing the latter's jolly and mischievous nature to the dead bones. He becomes downright nauseous when he can hardly see anything in common: "Where be your gibes now? your gambols? your songs? your flashes of merriment, that were wont to set the table on a roar? Not one now, to mock your own grinning? quite chap-fallen?" (5.1.169-173)

The dead man has lost his former individuality. When Horatio confirms Hamlet's assumption that all dead men look alike, he scornfully throws the skull on the ground (5.1.68). Yorick's skull consequently symbolizes more than death. It symbolizes how individuality is lost in death, how death robs a person of character.

Hamlet, who has already engaged in reflections on death in earlier scenes and has also attributed a redemptive quality to it (cf. Scene Analysis Act 3/ Scene 1), can hardly bear the thought that the mortal remains will be so undignified after death.

Hamlet's wardrobe change

Black for mourning

In the course of the drama, it is described several times how Hamlet changes his wardrobe. At the beginning of Act 1, Hamlet does not yet know about Claudius' fratricide; he has not yet met the ghost and has not yet set out to exhibit strange behavior.

Consequently, Hamlet is not yet concerned with hiding his grief for his father. He is wrapped in black mourning robes of a "nighted color" (1.2.70). Although Gertrude...

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